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obama brain initiative

Scientific collaboration needed to solve grand challenges


On October 20, 2015, the White House announced a new grand challenge that aims to “Create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” Solving this challenge will require the efforts of three federally funded research and development (R&D) initiatives: the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative.

This post will highlight the three initiatives that are collaborating to solve this grand challenge. Each of these initiatives brings unique abilities, and there is some overlap. This brings about an unprecedented necessity for collaboration in R&D, and productive collaboration within and across the initiatives will be key in ensuring success. We recently published an overview of the FY 2016 Federal R&D Budget, which talks briefly about the state of federal R&D funding.

National Strategic Computing Initiative

The NSCI was established in July 2015. Its purpose is to ensure the United States’ 60-year legacy as a leading authority in the field of High-Performance Computing (HPC) systems. In addition to making supercomputers more readily available and accessible to researchers in the public and private sectors, this initiative aims to greatly enhance the performance of HPC systems.

One specific goal of the NSCI is to build an exascale computer – a supercomputer able to perform an exaflop (1018 floating-point operations per second) on exabytes (1018 bytes) of data. Among other things, this will allow engineers to fully incorporate turbulence in their computational fluid dynamics simulations, thereby further reducing the time-consuming and costly steps of wind tunnel and flight testing. Weather simulations, DNA sequencing, and artificial intelligence will also greatly benefit from the research done in the NSCI.

With increasing speed comes increasing difficulty in handling the massive amounts of data, so this initiative is also working to develop new ways to manipulate and understand big data. (We recently wrote an in-depth article about the challenges and possibilities of this initiative.)

National Nanotechnology Initiative

The NNI is a collaborative effort between 20 departments and independent agencies. The majority of its investments are from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy. It serves as a collaborative hub where researchers from multiple fields – ranging from biology to electrical engineering – work together to understand and control matter at the nanoscale (one billionth of a meter in size) in the hopes of revolutionizing technology and industry for society’s prosperity.

Advancements in nanotechnology will be used to solve many of the hardware problems associated with this grand challenge. Microchip manufacturers are reaching a fundamental limit on the ability to shrink transistors, but power consumption is currently the major obstacle to obtaining faster computers.

New nanoscale materials and devices with better electrical and thermal properties will benefit markets across the board, including the automotive, medical device, and consumer electronics markets. Our recent post on nanotechnology’s potential contributions to the Internet of Things gives a brief overview of the field and potential ways NNI-funded research will be used in the future.

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies

The BRAIN initiative aims to develop and implement technologies that can “produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.” These technologies will be critically useful in not only understanding brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, but also in helping researchers determine how to treat, prevent, and cure them. Computer scientists and engineers will use the enhanced understanding of the brain to make algorithms and machine learning more beneficial, and computing more energy efficient.

The 10-year initiative was launched in 2013 and is a massive collaborative effort between a five government agencies – the NIH, NSF, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity – and a multitude of foundations, institutes, universities, and industry partners. The NIH released a report in 2014 titled BRAIN 2025: A scientific vision, which outlines their progress to date.

Intertwined initiatives

Ultimately, R&D is essential to ensuring the continued security and economic prosperity of the United States. As you can see, the objectives of these three initiatives are intricately intertwined and uniquely situated in a way that theoretically allows this grand challenge to be solved. Advancements in nanotechnology will allow the computing researchers to work with the neuroscientists on designing and building the supercomputers that the neuroscientists will then use to model the human brain in real-time. This will lead to a better understanding of the human brain, which in turn will help the NSCI make the supercomputers dreamed of in this grand challenge.

These three initiatives have set ambitious goals for themselves, and like most research, the results will likely have findings we can’t yet imagine. While collaboration is necessary in pushing the frontiers of science, strong leadership and strategic planning are perhaps more critical than ever before.


Elsie Bjarnason contributed to this blog post.

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